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Who’s building your house?

When I was growing up in New York, the guy who owned the Syms men’s clothing franchise was their main advertising pitchman. His catch phrase (which is still the company’s motto, apparently) was that “An educated consumer is our best customer.” Here in Texas, an educated consumer is exactly what the homebuilding industry does not want.

Used to be, diligent consumers would check out complaints against builders at the attorney general’s office, look for major lawsuits at the courthouse, and investigate credentials.

But now that’s getting harder to do because the Texas Attorney General’s Office stopped processing all consumer complaints three years ago, and there are fewer homeowner lawsuits at the courthouse because of binding arbitration clauses in contracts.

And, a new state-mandated credential – a registration with the Texas Residential Construction Commission – doesn’t carry as much weight as some consumers may think, consumer advocates say.

[…]

If the [Attorny General’s] office thinks it can help consumers, it will, but if it deems another agency may be more helpful or that the consumer needs legal representation, it refers the complainant out.

So consumers investigating a builder may request all complaints filed with the attorney general’s office and information on any actions taken against someone. But if the complaint was farmed out, it could be difficult to learn how the complaint was resolved or if it was justified.

Consumers should note that the attorney general’s office keeps count of complaints going back several years, but physical records are kept for just two years.

Consumers also used to be told to go to the courthouse to check for any major lawsuits against a builder.

But, that’s getting harder because most builders have mandatory arbitration clauses in their contracts, restraining homeowners from suing, said Janet Ahmad, a San Antonio-based consumer advocate who heads HomeOwners for Better Building.

There are few homeowner lawsuits because many builders, with the exception of KB, require binding arbitration, she said.

[…]

[T]rying to learn the outcome of an arbitration is difficult.

That’s because arbitrations, by their nature, are secretive and their results tend to be sealed when they are filed with the court.

Plus, even though the Texas Residential Construction Commission allows companies and consumers to report arbitration awards to the agency within 30 days of filing it in court, the commission has received only eight filings in its three-year existence.

Ahmad said that may be because some cases take considerable time to resolve and some companies probably just do not want the information to be public.

And on and on. Remember that in order to be allowed to file a lawsuit against a builder, where the outcome is public record, you first have to go through the aforementioned TRCC, one of whose members is the right-hand man of zillionaire homebuilder Bob Perry. Hey, the game may be rigged, but it’s the only game in town, you know?

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